Culture Magazine

Review: The City and The City (Lifeline Theatre)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat

Steve Schine stars in City and the City, Lifeline Theatre Chicago   
The City and The City 

Adapted by Christopher M. Walsh  
Directed by Dorothy Milne
Based on the novel by China Miéville
at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
thru April 7   |  tickets: $20-$35   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
   Read entire review



Audacious attempt undone by overreaching


Chris Hainsworth, Steve Schine, Bryson Engel, City and the City, Lifeline Theatre


Lifeline Theatre presents


The City & The City

Review by Clint May 

Setting in science fiction is paramount. More so even than character development. The setting for the world premiere adaptation of the award-winning novel “The City & The City” at Lifeline Theatre actually has some strange real life corollaries. It’s the city of Baarle-Hertog—a city that arbitrarily crosshatches its borders between two countries—that may have inspired China Miéville to create his fictional twin-cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. Like many a great work of science fiction, City creates a setting as an absurdist commentary on society. In this case, it’s the absurdity of immediacy. We’ve become so good at “unseeing” (to use the Orwellian parlance of City) things we don’t wish to see that the schizoid habit fractures the world around us into enclaves where we see only what we want to see (a theme previously explored in Lifeline’s 2010 Neverwhere). It’s easy to pretend that violence is a South Chicago problem or pass by the homeless man on the street if we can just make it evaporate from our minds. The City & The City blends the premise of two cities sharing the same geographic space but that are not allowed to interact (reminds me of this famous map of London) and overlays it with a police procedural that plumbs the surreal depths such a situation provides. Lifeline’s adaptation has grand hopes but is undone by a need for a much more explicit staging and tone.

Steve Schine and Volen Iliev, City and the City, Lifeline Theatre
As this is both a mystery and science fiction, I’ll have to tip-toe around the set up to avoid spoilers. Tyador Borlú (Steve Schine), of the Extreme Crime Squad in the city of Besźel, has been called in to investigate the murder of a young woman, Mahalia Geary. As he delves deeper into the mystery, he finds himself unraveling a trail that leads to the heart of the political, corporate, and fantastical elements that exist (or don’t exist) in and in the spaces between the two cities. Always overhead is the threat of the all-powerful Breach—a mysterious Big Brotherish entity that exists inside and outside both cities and ensures that the two never meet even when inches apart. They’ve existed since the schism that split the two cities in an event now long forgotten and only hinted at by archaeological digs. There’s some stuff about a mysterious third city, Orciny, that exists between both in the places that neither can acknowledge as one or the other.

Lifeline has a history (and a mission) of tackling big ideas in its intimate space, but this may be an instance of biting off more than it can chew. Scenes of the two cities interacting and yet not interacting (the citizens “unsee” based on dress codes, speech, and movement patterns that help distinguish who belongs to their city and can therefore be acknowledged) fail to convey the appropriate weirdness of the setting. It’s difficult to imagine how it could be without a massive cast and stage or the resources of a movie to feel crushingly larger than life. Costumes by Izumi Inaba don’t project enough difference between the two sets of citizens, nor can the set by Joe Schermoly adapt to allow us to see as these people see. That’s an absolutely critical injunction in a work of sci-fi—to be transportive into a world we don’t live in. When working in this genre, there are typically two routes of revelation concerning the esoteric elements that make a story “sci fi”: the slow burn of discovery or the quick-get-it out/get-to-the-story. City chooses the former method to its detriment. Trying to unravel the mystery of how the two cities interact in Miéville’s world  coupled with the more recognizable agendas of politicians, students, professors, rebels, etc. means that you can’t focus enough on either. Despite several flow-interrupting expositions, Christopher M. Walsh’s adaptation sells the world too little too late. It’s a shame, because it really is a great metaphor, worthy of a golden age Twilight Zone, Outer Limits or even Star Trek.

Anchoring the proceedings (and one of the few in the cast to have only one role), Schine is too much an everyman and not enough policeman. He’s not helped by director Dorothy Milne’s uneven tone, which includes a little too much levity and one-dimensional characterizations to get us to invest in any one fate. Playing an imposing member of Breach, Don Bender brings the appropriate gravitas I wish everyone else could land so that the final climax wasn’t such a confusing, muddled mess.

Two worlds existing in parallel is not a new idea for science fiction. Such a tantalizing concept that a movie with anti-establishment themes of two worlds colliding (with a crime or with love, normally one then the other) comes out every few years. Analyzing our societal cognitive dissonance is one of the great feats of art, and I wouldn’t be surprised if City’s movie rights get sold any day now. I applaud Lifeline’s audacity even as I bemoan its shortfalls.


Rating: ★★



The City and the City continues through April 7th at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map), with performances Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays 4pm and 8pm, Sundays 4pm.  Tickets are $20-$35, and are available by phone (773-761-4477) or online at (check for half-price tickets at More information at  (Running time: play length, includes an intermission)

Steve Schine as Inspector Tyador Borlú, City and the City, Lifeline Theatre

Photos by Suzanne Plunkett




Patrick Blashill (Bowden, Shukman, Syedr), Chris Hainsworth (Dhatt), Don Bender (Mr. Geary, Ashil), Bryson Engelen (Jaris, Yorjavic, Samun), Marsha Harman (Corwi), Jonathan Helvey (Drodin, Aikam, Unif Boy), Millicent Hurley (Mrs. Geary, Nancy), Volen Iliev (Naustin, Buric), Steve Schine (Borlú), Megan M. Storti (Yolanda, Unif Girl, Raina)

behind the scenes

Dorothy Milne (director), Phil Timberlake (dialect coach), Christopher M. Walsh (adaptor), Becky Bishop (stage manager), Leah Cox (dramaturg), Benjamin W. Dawson (production manager), Jesse Gaffney (prop design), Izumi Inaba (costumes), Christopher Kriz (original music, sound design), Amanda Link (movement design, asst. director), Greg Poljacik (violence design), Joe Schermoly (scenic design, tech director), Brandon Wardell (lighting), Suzanne Plunkett (photos)


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